Friday, August 24, 2018

As The Classic Film "Casablanca" Turns 75-A Look Back

Comment by Sam Lowell 

As the person who did the piece on NPR noted at the end of her piece on the making of Casablanca-even after 75 years the romance of the film and the story line still grabs one attention.

Here's a recent comment by Seth Garth in honor of the occasion:

Memories Of Rick-With Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s “Casablanca” In Mind

By Seth Garth

[Before he passed away in the late 1980s the long time French police officer, Commandant Louis Renault (everybody, everybody but the bad guys who crossed his path and there were plenty and not all of them Germans, called him “Louie” for his mild-mannered easy style when he was not in hot pursuit of some nefarious types)who had worked both in colonial Algeria and French Morocco before heading back home to work with the National Police in his hometown of Lyon, liked to sit in the Café Algiers there and reminisce about all his adventures as a cop. When asked about the most memorable person, friend or foe, he had been up against in his times he would without much hesitation blurt out the name of Rick Blaine.

Rick of Rick’s Café in Casablanca when Louie had worked in French Morocco early in World War II after the fall of the French Republic and the rise of the Vichy government which controlled that colony then. He as a police officer noted the changing of the guard and went about his business as usual-regimes come and go he had always said but the cops are forever. After investigation of Rick’s past, most of the early part as a tough guy out of Hell’s Kitchen in New York City a place where Rick would make people laugh when he said even the mighty Germans would think twice about occupying and had included some troubling adventurous activity for the “wrong” side in Ethiopia and Spain during the 1930s, he, after having had his palm “greased” issued the liquor and nightclub license for Rick to keep his Cafe Americian open under his prefecture.
For most of the time he knew Rick in Casablanca they had had a good working relationship. Rick would let him “win” at the roulette wheel as his pay-off for letting illegal gambling go on in full sight, “comp” him for drinks and dope, mostly hashish, and let him have his women “rejects” on the rebound. Then she came in, came in as Rick said one drunken night when she had her claws in him bad again “of all the gin joints in all the world she had to show up at his door.” From then on things got interesting, very interesting. The following is a translation by Jean Marais of what Louie had to say when he was asked by a National Police archivist for details of his relationship with one Rick Blaine (1920-1982)-SG]             

“That Rick Blaine was a piece of work, one of the last of the pre-war, pre-World War II if anybody is asking which war we are talking about, romantics tilting his lance at the windmills in the name of love-or the thrill of adventure, maybe even the thrill of tweaking somebody’s nose just for the hell of it, Louie Renault was reminiscing out loud to those who were attending his retirement party. Retirement from the National Police, [the French coppers although they are not national cops like the FBI in America but just like city and town cops there run through the central government], the guys who keep order in places like Paris and Lyon (since it was a governmental pension he was about to receive after much haggling his service during Vichy times first in Algiers and then in French-controlled Morocco, in Casablanca, was included as well as his Lyon assignments). He had been asked a question by one of the younger policer officers about what was his most memorable episode in a long and illustrious career. Of course Louie had to go back to those early war days when he ran the operation for Vichy in godforsaken Casablanca to find some events, some characters who could qualify for what that young officer was asking about. Had to go back to Rick Blaine without question.             

“Yes, Rick was the real thing, I wasn’t kidding when I mentioned his name,” Louie blurted out when the officer did not comprehend why a guy whom he had on other occasions called nothing but a saloon keeper, a guy out for himself whatever checkered past he might have had rated so high. “Let me fill you and see if I am not right about this whole matter.” He would say out of earshot that even De Gaulle would gladly take a back seat after hearing this story since he was safely in London being a pain in the ass to the British and American while “little guys” like Rick and a guy who looked pretty big even by De Gaulle standards Victor Lazlo were mercilessly tweaking the German’s tail.        

“Once the Germans marched into Paris they controlled the whole political situation but since they couldn’t handle a total occupation of France and wreak havoc on the rest of Europe at the same time they left part of the country to the French military, to General Petain who worked out of Vichy, the place where the specialized water comes from. Yeah, collaborators, liked they used to try to hang on me before Rick came to Casablanca, Lazlo too, and got everybody well. I had been in Algiers during that time but once the new political reality hit I was assigned to run the police operations in bloody Casablanca-a backwater where every odd-ball thing could and did happen as well as plenty of illegal stuff from dope to women to smuggling. Just my cup of tea. I figured that I could make more graft there in the Casbah than staying in Algiers once the British and Americans got serious about dislodging the Germans from Northern Africa.   

“No sooner had I landed in Casablanca then I spied Rick’s place, Rick’s Café Americian he called it, a place where there was plenty of booze, women, gambling, dope and whatever else you wanted. Or wanted done-life was cheap there-dirt cheap. The bloody Arabs could barely keep themselves busy except when some silly “blood honor” thing came up and we had to pick up the mess after the killings. Some he said, the other guy said stuff and then bang-bang. Had to arrest about fifteen people, family members from both sides and show them a little baton to the head just to let them know we meant business. Nobody ever faulted me on that score. I walked in and introduced myself to Rick without saying anything further. He looked at me with a twinkle in his eye he said later after all the smoke had cleared and we could be honest with each other, sized me up and down and knowing that I would do “business” after that appraisal said would the previous arrangement with the Prefect I was replacing be okay- a cut of the profits, a slice of the gambling [paid out by his “winning at roulette” with lucky red 22], my pick of women, free liquor and dope, and deep discounts on anything else I needed. Also told me of his dealings, his working relationships for dope, booze and Moslem women which it seemed some of the Europeans were crazy for although I was strictly for the low-rent French tarts who found Casablanca easy on their virtue, with Sydney Greenstreet, an émigré merchant of sorts from England over in the Casbah. I immediately issued the necessary licenses that each new Prefect was entitled to issue as was my prerogative. Done.

“This Rick was a hard guy to figure though the more I ran into him on the street or more regularly in his place either to grab some young woman, to grab my cut, to “win” at roulette, or just to have some high shelf bonded whiskey that I became very fond of. Somebody said, I think it was Frenchie the main bartender, that Rick had had some kind of an adventurous past, had run some guns to Ethiopia when they were trying to hold off the Italians when Mussolini was flexing his muscles and later fought with the International Brigades, with the Communists in Spain when Franco was working up to flexing his muscles. I had already known that past from the files the previous Prefect had left and from a couple of snitches I had run through Rick’s place but the “grease” from Rick’s deal said otherwise in my eyes.   When I first met him he was all business like I said, if you said green he said okay what shade, that kind of thing.

“Somebody said, maybe it was Frenchie again since I sat at the bar of the joint many a night to “enforce” the no gambling regulation and to drink a few high shelf scotches, that Rick had been unlucky in love and that was why when he, Rick,  had his choice of any girl he wanted, two if he was feeling frisky, would take them up to his office and apartment upstairs from the club, do whatever it was that they did, some wild stuff I heard from a couple of them that I caught on the “rebound” especially from one who took him “around the world” which she would later do with me and the next night would not know them. Tell them to sell their wares in the Casbah, a low thing to say to a European woman if you knew anything at all about what went on in the Casbah. I never went there personally but would sent for this Greenstreet to deliver me my graft and whatever dope I was looking for at the time. Like I said mainly hashish from the pipe. In the end it would be that lost love that had been bothering Rick once she came to town but early on you couldn’t tell what was eating at him. Just knew that he had a chip on his shoulder which would not fall off.

“Jesus, in those days there were all kinds of people as you can imagine trying to get out of Europe for one reason or another and once France and the countries around it fell to the Germans that was doubled up. Homeless, stateless Jews, who we all knew were being savaged by the Germans and by Vichy too, International Brigaders who couldn’t go back to their occupied homelands, local Communists who didn’t get or who couldn’t get underground, anybody out of the ordinary, we even had a couple of kids, rich kids who had left Hamburg once Hitler said that jazz was a Negro-Jew conspiracy and banned the music. If you looked at a map of Europe in say 1941 you would notice that there was not much wiggle room to work with in order to get out of some occupied spot. The road out though however they got there led to Casablanca no matter what the individual reason for leaving Europe was. The link. The air flights to Lisbon and from there anyplace but the old canard Europe.

“So you know that there was plenty of money to be made by those daring enough to act as smugglers to get these desperate people out one way or another. I could have made plenty if I had decided to use my position to get real greedy but I didn’t want to deal with a bunch of desperate people bothering me about why they weren’t getting out fast enough. Rick and the Casbah made me plenty-for a while. All the action either went through that guy Sidney Greenstreet who ran his operation out of the Casbah where he mainly handled small fry, people of no account but with money, or at Rick’s for the higher class clientele. Mostly the wealthier Jews and previously high placed officials of democratic governments who the Germans were desperate to find and make an example out off for their compatriots under occupation. Some seriously shady characters, art forgers, crazed jazz aficionados, con artists, three card monte hustlers, independent dope dealers-mainly heroin out of the Afghan fields working their way West to the cities, jack-rollers, rapists and assorted slugs, characters who even we had to keep an eye on to keep any kind of order plopped themselves there.          

“Things though were going fine until some horse’s asses, as it turned out guys we had on our radar but couldn’t quite nab, decided they would murder a couple of German couriers and grab a couple of letters of transit they were travelling with. Now these letters of transit were like gold-would make their possessor a pot of gold. Maybe two pots if they worked it right. These were no questions asked documents which only had to have names filled in order to catch a flight to Lisbon and from there wherever else they wanted to go. This weasel, well known to us from a couple of rip-off jobs he did on unsuspecting travelers, a guy named Peter Lorre was part of the gang who took the couriers down. One night he showed up at Rick’s the natural place to start looking for high-end buyers and we nailed him-took him in “custody” but he didn’t have the letters of transit on him. He hanged himself in his cell before we could get much more out of him. Rick had been as cool as a cucumber when this weasel, this sweaty little nobody showed his ugly face there. This Lorre begged Rick to hide him. Rick just blew him off, told him to get lost. A couple of customers made noises when we grabbed and manhandled Lorre saying they wouldn’t patronize Rick’s again because of his attitude in the matter. Rick told them something that impressed me at the time-he wasn’t sticking his neck out for anybody. Those customers by the way were back the next night when I let Rick reopen the place and he sent them over a couple of drinks. They were his best buddies then.   

“That courier murder business though would lay us all low. See the Germans had sent over this hard-ass major, Major Veidt (sic) I think his name was if I remember the name correctly, to look into the matter. I was trying to impress him so he would put in a good word for me with Vichy. That was the whole idea behind making a big deal out of the Lorre arrest (and I was happy when he hung himself because he would have not stood up well under German methods and he might have spilled who knows what about what was going on in Casablanca at the time). That made Rick’s gesture at the time this guy Lorre begged him to save him from my men even more important. Rick just looked the other way and Lorre was a goner. We never did get the other guys in with Lorre when we rounded up, our what did we call them, oh yes,  “usual suspects”, Communists and con men and a few whores who we regularly rounded up to fill the jails full and make it look like we were doing our jobs. Some wound up out in a desert graveyard once we were done with them.                                                                                                                                             

“Like I said in those days all kinds of people were coming through town. One of them a guy I mentioned before and said I would speak of again named Victor Lazlo had escaped from a German concentration camp and somehow he had worked his way through whatever network he had in Europe to Casablanca. This Lazlo was well-known as a leader of the resistance to the German occupations of half of Europe so a guy whom the Germans, especially this Major Veidt, were foaming at the mouth to get their hands on. But as long as he didn’t do anything illegal I had no reason to arrest him. I had half-figured when I heard he was in town to see who the highest bidder, strictly cash, was for his hide and take my cut that way. 

“But here is where things got interesting. This Lazlo, a good-looking guy with good manners and a good tipper according to Frenchie, was not travelling alone. He had this beautiful woman with him, one of the most beautiful I have ever seen then or now, Ilsa something, I am not sure we ever knew her last name and it didn’t matter with a beauty like that. When she showed up our Rick went crazy, went crazy like a loon. See he had come to Casablanca just ahead of the German armies advancing on Paris with this black guy who was an entertainer, a singer and piano player named Sam and a sour look on his face. He had “known” Ilsa in Paris, had been her fancy man from what I could tell. They were supposed to blow town together and meet at the train station one evening on the last train out of Paris before the Germans stopped the trains. She was a “no show.” She was in living color the reason that Rick had been so indifferent to everything. Why he turned over perfectly good women to me without batting an eyelash.            

“Of course the minute she showed up the old flames were re-kindled-for both of them. She had spied Sam at the piano through the heavily smoke-filled room, had forced him to play “their” song, If I Didn’t Care I think and when Rick heard that he went ballistic, was ready to come to blows with Sam since Sam had been ordered never to play the song. Then he spotted her across the piano and he melted down like an ice cube. It seems that in Paris she had assumed her husband, this Lazlo was dead, had been killed by the Germans. False report. That last day in Paris she found out through some underground source that Lazlo was still alive and she had gone to him. Leaving Rick standing in the rain at the fucking train station. Naturally all of this stuff I learned later but that “left standing in the rain” is what drove Rick to get up on his high horse and create nothing but trouble for me and my men once she came into view.  

“That long gone Lorre had given Rick the letters of transit to keep for him the night Rick looked the other way when we grabbed the weasel and made him squeal or whatever weasels do when they are caught. When with Rick’s help he fell down, wound up at the end of his checkered tie, Rick figured that he would use the letters to get himself out of hellhole Casablanca. He said that even Hell’s Kitchen in New York where he had grown up (and had “advised” the Germans to think twice about trying to occupy if you recall) was less dangerous than Casablanca so you get an idea how bad things were-how cheap life was on in the desert. Worse than the bloody wogs the British were always moaning about in the Raj, in India. He wasn’t going alone though. She, Ilsa, was going with him. She had snuck up into his apartment one night when Lazlo was out doing his organizing of the local resistance. As a result of that outlawed meeting I had Lazlo picked up when he surfaced, you couldn’t have such meetings and I knew that German major would be happy to hear that I had the great Victor Lazlo locked up like a caged animal.

“Whatever Rick and Ilsa did and from what Frenchie said Oscar the head waiter told him they had definitely gone under the sheets from his disheveled look and the blush on her face when Rick told Oscar to escort her home they were blowing town together. When Oscar told me that story a few days later I wondered about what had happened. What had made sour Rick decide to blow a good thing in Casablanca (my good thing too don’t forget). No question Ilsa was a beauty, an exceptional beauty but after the way she had left him high and dry in Paris I figured maybe a quick roll in the hay and then off alone. But you never know about beautiful women, sometimes they can be just as kinky as any whore or any low-rent tart. She didn’t look that way but maybe with a few drinks and an agenda of her own-like getting Lazlo out- alone- she took him around the world like that ex-flame Lisette had.      

“Somehow and I never could get him to tell me exactly what happened he had had an epiphany after that night some kind of turnaround. All he would say back then was the way the world was just then the troubles of three people, him, Ilsa and Lazlo weren’t worth a hill of beans compared what was going on. But whatever the source from then on he was on fire, was maybe thinking back to that old fight in Spain, thought about some payback for lost comrades, maybe what would happen if the Germans won, maybe he just didn’t like that Major Veidt and his arrogant ways closing up his café when the high rollers were coming in for their weekend beatings.

“So he gave Ilsa one story about how they should meet at the airport and blow town. She was all over that idea and had dropped any mention of Lazlo. He told me another. Talked me into a deal that when I thought about it later I should have figured was bullshit from minute number one. Confessed to me that he had the letters. Was blowing town with Ilsa and that was that. He said -let’s do this though. Let Lazlo out, let him get to the airport with the letters and grab him as an accessory for the courier murders. A feather in my cap was all I could think of. Would get that fucking Major Veidt off my back about picking up Lazlo and showing him the desert sights. When the deal went down though Rick was faking the whole thing. Maybe not about wanting to flee with Ilsa but about his attitude toward Lazlo. He had convinced me of his plan but when the deal went down I was the fall guy, well, one of the fall guys. That German major took the big fall when he tried to stop the plane to Lisbon as Lazlo and Ilsa got on the plane. Rick took him down without a murmur in one clean shot making me wonder how the Loyalists lost in Spain with a guy like that working with them.
“Needless to say when I was caught in a bind I stepped away from danger by refusing to arrest Rick. I went into the usual dodge-round up the usual suspects, double it up this time since a goddam German major was under the ground. I resolved the bind I was in pretty simply. I figured my days in Morocco were finished and so I saw the writing on the wall. I walked away with Rick (an action that I was successfully able to use in order to have my service time there count toward my retirement which I had many hassles over before I won). We made our way to Brazzaville with the dough Rick grabbed from Greenstreet when Rick sold him his interest in the café. I stayed there grabbing my graft until the end of the war and had worked various grifts with Rick until he went back to Europe a few months later where he joined up with the French resistance, worked with Samuel Beckett the exiled Irish playwright who was deeply into the organization from what I heard later. I heard from him a few times over the years before he passed away a few years ago. I guess Casablanca was in his blood because after the war he ran the Café Casablanca in New York City for some thirty years before he gave it up to retire. But what a guy that Rick was, giving up that luscious piece for unsung glory underground in France. Making that big gesture for love. Yeah, the last of the pre-war romantics.




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